Today's blog entry is an interview with Fred Williams, the other presenter at the Symposium on Wednesday night. Fred answered the same questions as Bruce did, via email with me. I want to thank Fred and Bruce for taking the time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions. Their answers are extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking. After reading them I am really looking forward to the Symposioum on Wednesday night.
1. What got you interested in the issues of technology, identity, and social change, the themes of the symposium at which you will both be presenting?
Fred Williams: I've been interested in such issues as long as I can remember. A major focus of my undergraduate and graduate work in economics was the role of technological change in economic growth and their combined effect on people and society. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights were profoundly affected by the agricultural and industrial revolutions -- but it took more than a century for our laws to adjust to many of the social changes arising from these technological and economic revolutions. When I became a computer and intellectual property prosecutor over 15 years ago, I compared these revolutions to the IT revolution and predicted that we will have similar social and cultural changes and disruptions, but over a much shorter time frame. The law could not keep up then, and it can’t keep up now. This has been a major theme of my teaching at UNCC over the years.
2. What are your thoughts on the theme of technology having the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration in an academic setting as well as for collaboration between the academy and the public at large?
Fred Williams: We all live in a world full of technological change. Those in the academy, perhaps more than the average of those outside it, need to constantly access and use information. Therefore, an information revolution has to change academic life. It will not be long before it is hard to find someone in a university who relies on thousands of 3x5 cards with bibliographic information and fragments of information scribbled on them. What did the Library of Congress do with all its millions and millions of 3x5 cards in its various catalogues and shelf lists? Do people still use those huge and cumbersome sets of books abstracting various publications?
Relations among disciplines and between the academy and the public are likely to fundamentally change. The university itself may not survive in a recognizable form. The IT revolution makes information exchanges easier and less costly. Entities created to create and exchange information, including universities, have to be significantly affected by new ways of accomplishing the purposes for which they were created -- ways which may make their whole raison d’être obsolete.
What Wikipedia has done to Britannica on dead trees, what Amazon has done to bookstores, what Google has done to libraries, the web may do to both the teaching and the research functions of the university.
In terms of the university’s research function, academics may simply become members of the cloud. As Tim Messer-Kruse learned, status in academe does not give one the right to override the cloud and force Wikipedia to accept the results of your research about a controversial event (the Haymarket riots etc.). Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/12/12. The oracle in the ivory tower may have no better access to the information relevant to a question than a high school drop out living in his parent’s basement.
What are your biggest fears about the technological future?
Fred Williams: Dystopia. A totalitarian state with total knowledge of everything about everybody and arbitrary power over each. Some say that the IT revolution makes it inevitable that all dictatorships will fall. Much credit for the Arab Spring must be given to the IT revolution: the internet, cell phones, texts, social media, etc.
But can we really assume that the new tools are uniquely suitable for bringing down evil tyrants and establishing more democratic governments? Or can these tools be used to establish and perpetuate an efficient totalitarian state? Most likely, IT can be used for either just as the same hand gun can be used by a tyrannicide or by a member of the Gestapo.
It remains to be seen whether the Arab Spring brings a better life for the people. Perhaps we will look back and say the old dictators were far better than the new ones. I think and hope not, but only time will tell.
Now Google and other big entities have more knowledge of each member of our society than the KGB could have with virtually everybody coerced into being an informer against virtually everybody else. It may well be possible for governments to co-opt this power: first to win elections, second to eliminate real elections, and third to establish totalitarian control of everybody.
I hope for the best, and think that the most probable future is not the very worst.
What are your greatest hopes for the technological future?
Fred Williams: Utopia. Free and easy access to publicly valuable information; effective protections for private information. Free and easy access to the information necessary to improve lives, promote health, create shared wealth, improve moral and psychological well being, distinguish good from bad politicians, etc. No access to personal information of private persons without their consent so that individuals have room for a sane and healthy life. Deciding where the line between public and private information -- and balancing the need for privacy against the need for solving crimes -- are not easy. The line may need to be in different places for different purposes.
Realistically, of course, neither utopia nor dystopia is the most probable future. Things are most likely to muddle along somewhere in between, with many losses of values and many gains.
Is technology, broadly speaking, something that humans can control?
Fred Williams: Sure, in the abstract. “Technology” implies tools and techniques for accomplishing practical objectives. If I open a tool box, I can choose which tool to use -- one tool can’t force me to choose it.
But if I want to cut a metal bar in half, will I choose a carpenter’s saw or a hack saw? Tools are utilitarian. If you have access to a tool that makes it easy to do the task at hand, how often will you use one that makes the task hard?
Some may have spent the last 40 years getting really good at research and writing using 3x5 cards, pencil and paper, books in a library, and paying someone to type their drafts. It may be more efficient for them to continue using old tools because it would be too much trouble to learn the new ones. But why would anyone in their 20s want to learn those research technologies?
Could we decide to go back to the beauty of hand written, illuminated, and leather bound books instead of printed ones? Can we stop the spread of digital ones which lack the emotional attachments we old fogies have to content on dead trees?
No matter how strong the privacy and inter-personal relationship concerns, can we persuade our kids to forego Facebook, Twitter, IM, and texts as opposed to face-to-face and more private means of communication? I can’t!
A modern developed society may choose to pay some people to live (somewhat) as if they were peasants in medieval or farmers in the 19th century. There is value in living an older lifestyle. But would such a society go back to an agricultural technology that required 90% of the population live such a live in order to provide enough food to feed everyone?
Certainly society, through law and law enforcement by a strong state, can have some impact on technological and social changes. Perhaps a lot more impact than Canute’s orders to the tide. But perhaps a lot less impact than we’d like.
Can we by education and the spread of enlightened values help people make wiser choices, even if they forego some efficiencies? That would seem a better way to control technology than laws. We have an obligation to our kids and grandkids to do what we can to push the changes more toward utopia than dystopia.